Thursday, September 3, 2009

Motorcycle Racing : 'Then' and 'Now' ...

Motorcycle Racing : What changed between 'Then' and 'Now' ...

When we discuss about the changes inside yourself that defined you, a lots of facts flash into the memory. A big span of 15-16 years still feel fresh like yesterday only. Truly its amazing, how we don't really always realize how quickly we have actually moved up from the boyhood days to the current state. And looking back, all those small boyhood dreams still seems fresh. The Fast Bike Posters that used to cover the walls of our Bedrooms still seems like things of wonderland. Of course we have learnt to be much more practical and we don't usually cherish our fantasy like we used to do, as our method of spending weekends have changed a lot. For some it is on Phone with Girlfriends, for some it is in Discs and Clubs, for some it is on Bars, for some it is in Home with Domestic works, for some it is on a Date with a Girl, and for us it is on a Trip; - oh well, most of the times ... However, one thing still didn't change even after these many years, as we still nourish our love for the Fast vehicles of Wonderland in the secret corner of our heart.

I don’t need Lonavla or Mysore or Deegha on weekends – MotoGP on television, a bunch of friends who’re also mad about Motorcycle Racing and some cans of cold beer work just fine. I have always been a mad Fan of Valentino Rossi just like most of my friends. However I knew a friend of mine 'Samrat' who is not. And while everyone is rooting for Rossi, he is usually harbouring secret hopes of Loris Capirossi (and till a few years back, Max Biaggi ...) pulling one out of the bag and taking top spot. Samrat, who is about 10 years older to me, and whom I affectionately call 'Samrat-da' (a short form of 'dada', means big brother) knows a lot about these races and the riders. We used to discuss a lot about Racing, Bikes, MotoGP and other forms. It is only that one fine day, suddenly he expressed his dissapointment over the dominance of Valentino Rossi. When I asked for the reason, he cited some of the nostalgic examples, that I also could not deny.

He used to say, "Rossi is a racing God without doubt, but my loyalties are elsewhere". Cable TV has been around for less than twenty years and hence most of our motorcycle racing heroes, and the racing motorcycles which we idolise, are from the 1980s and 90s, which is when we started watching racing earnestly (if not regularly). Seeing the blazing fast Bikes scorching through the fastest of the Tracks in TV, used to make our Days. Although I watched most of the 80s Races much later in downloaded videos and Racing DVDs; I actually knew most of these racers' history and pedigree in and out. I used to read in the Magazines and Books about these Scorchers. Barry Sheene, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan from the two-stroke 500s era. Biaggi, when he was racing Aprilia 250s, was awesome. Capirossi’s 125 and 250 battles were also epic. From World Superbikes, some names that come to mind are Giancarlo ‘The Lion’ Falappa, Raymond Roche, Fabrizio Pirovano, Doug Chandler, Rob Phillis, Scott Russell, Doug Polen and of course, Carl Fogarty. More recently Phil Read, Noriyuki Haga, James Toseland and Troy Bayliss. The classic battle between the Yamaha and Honda teams are forever etched in the mind of any Racing fan around the world.

It’s not that motorcycle racing is any less exciting now than it was in the 80s and the 90s. It’s just that motorcycle racing heroes you grow up watching and reading about, like the music you grow up listening to, always stay with you. They are special in ways that can’t always be logically explained. I may have started watching these greats much later in 98-99 in fact, but for Samrat he already knew most of these Bikers from late-80s. Thats why I did not challenge when Samrat was saying Kevin Schwantz, for example, who may have won only one 500cc World Championship, for Samrat, he’ll always be greater than Valentino Rossi. A part of the all-American Rainey-Lawson-Schwantz holy trinity, number 34 is magical beyond the number of races and championships won.

Statistics will show you that the Races have become much more competitive. In 70s the legendary Giacomo Agostini used to win races by a margin of more than a Lap (partly due to the Horsepower advantage he had in his MV Agusta over other Bikes. Although later he showed his skills on the Yamaha Bikes also.)(His 'MV Agusta' used to have around 40 Bhp more power than the Triumph, Ducati and Nortons) Prior to that, the great Mike Hailwood dominated the racing circuits on his MV and Hondas before his unfortunate death in a Car accident.
Now compare that to today's scenario where in a Race the Top 3 spots have been decided within a time difference of 0.4 seconds. Statistics will repeatedly prove you how hard Racing in the top level has become. But, ask any person of 70s or 80s, they will not agree to these stats at any cost. It is something that is way beyond mathemetical explanation.

Ask any guy who followed the early 90s and they will argue about Mick Doohan like anything. Mick Doohan on his Honda NSR500 competed with very high spirit to win 5 consecutive World Championships (from 1994 to 1998). Despite encountering a terrible accident that permanently damaged his right foot, nothing could stop Mick Doohan to become the World Champion in the following years. Doohan used to control his rear brake with an additional lever in his left hand (below the Clutch lever). Being extremely dominant he won accolades around the Racing world and was loved, admired and worshipped like nothing else. Hence, those who have seen Doohan completing one flying Lap after another usually would be admiring him secretly even after 10 years. Likewise, we worship Freddie Spencer for having won both the 250 and the 500 crowns in 1985.

And Lawson, for winning the 500cc championship aboard a Yamaha YZR500 in 1988 and then again winning the 500 crown in 1989, on a Honda NSR500. That both machines were radically different in terms of their power delivery and handling characteristics made Lawson’s victories that much more significant. Of course, Lawson also gave Cagiva their first 500cc GP win in 1992, in the Hungarian GP, and got a Ferrari from Claudio Castiglioni (owner of Cagiva) for his efforts! And I do think Lawson’s fire-engine red Cagiva was one of the best-looking racing bikes ever, along with Schwantz’s 1989 Pepsi Suzuki RGV500, various Rothmans Honda NSR500s and green-white-blue Kawasaki ZXR750s from world superbikes. The JPS-liveried Norton F1 rotary racers also have a special place in our memories, as does the extraordinary blue-and-pink Britten V1000, which used to leave Ducati V-twins like they were standing still.

Things in World Superbike were also moving up significantly. The hard rivalry between 'Honda CBR 900RR' & 'Yamaha FZR 1000' was becoming intense with occassional entry from 'Suzuki GSX-R 750' or 'Kawasaki Ninja ZX-9R' or 'Ducati 916'. Then the year 1998 onwards supreme Yamaha YZF-R1 with its yearly revisions took Superbike Racing to a completely new level and found its worthy competitor in the equally elegant Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade.

Also Suzuki, Kawasaki and Ducati continued their pressure upon the top 2 teams with their revised GSXR-1000, ZX-10R and 1098R respectively. While the 4 Japanese Teams put out their best of the technologies in those mind boggling 1000cc 4-cylinder Superbikes, the Ducati opted for a 1200cc V-Twin Superbike to compete with them; and no doubt they are doing good. However, prospects in WSBK looks good as some of the other companies like Aprilia & BMW are all set to enter the competition with their RSV-4 & S1000RR respectively. Also we will still hope that the mighty MV Agusta gets in with their superb 'F4 1000'. Currently Yamaha with its revised supreme R1 is leading the pack while Honda with their Fireblade is following close, followed by the Ducati's 1200cc V-Twin '1098R'.

Be it MotoGP, be it Superbikes the Yamaha & Honda continued their sweet rivalry relentlessly. Although very recently the position of Honda has been taken by Ducati to become the main competitor of Yamaha in the Tracks.

Then came the Valentino Rossi period, when after conquering the 125 & 250 segment to become World Champion (1997 & 1999 respectively) in those with Aprilia, Rossi got the hold of the 2-stroke Honda NSR500. After mesmerizing the world to become the World Champion with NSR500 (2001) he went on to become the first World Champion in MotoGP (2002) era the following year . He switched to the legendary 4-stroke 990cc RC211V of Honda and continued his reign for next 2 years (2002 & 2003). However, Honda's claim of the might of the RC211V over the talent of Rossi, prompted the genius to switch to Yamaha and beat the crap out of Honda, with the sexy Yamaha YZR M1 to become World Champion again the very next year (2004). Hence forth the king continued with Yamaha to extend his kingdom and dominance to unheard of proportions. And Rossi became the God of Biking. Even after the Bikes' displacement were reduced to 800cc, Rossi's dominance didn't reduce a bit.

For me, being a die-hard Rossi fan I can remember almost each and every pass that the God of Biking has taken over his competitors to leave them in dust. However, it is not that because Valentino Rossi is considered the greatest, or he has won the highest number of World Championship titles after the legendary Giacomo Agostini, despite competing in only one Championship a year (Agostini won 2 championships a year multiple times in 350cc & 500cc class), or he has won highest number of MotoGP titles, or he has highest Podium finishes, or that he is going to own all the possible records or whatsoever. It is rather the simple fact that I always enjoyed the way Rossi tackled the competition with nerves of steel and the way Rossi entertained the audience like never before. So, like most of the fans of MotoGP I have the No. 46 boldly stamped in my mind, as the epitome of Perfection, Coolness, Greatness and Style. Be it with Honda or be it with Yamaha, Rossi for me remained as the God of Biking.

Samrat may disagree with me, as he still wants badly for an old time hero to beat the master of Biking. Max Biaggi is no more into MotoGP, but Loris Capirossi still is. It may be a nice change in the podium line-up after all, if somebody eventually breaks the Rossi jinx and wins the Championship instead. But this seems to be the most unlikely thing to happen considering the blistering form of the 8-time World Champion. Samrat these days however have started rooting for the new kid on the block, the superfast Jorge Lorenzo from Yamaha, who is very promising indeed. A lot many thinks Lorenzo is the worthy successor of the Rossi, and can win the World Championship in absense of the Master.

Samrat called me up from Manchester a few days back to check a few facts with me, and it all came down my memory how fortunate I have been, to witness the audacity of all these supreme riders in my lifetime. And it came to my mind how the things have changed in past decade, which still feels like just a few days back.

From the ferocious, fire-spitting, two-stroke 500ccs, to the tech-laden 990cc four-stroke MotoGP bikes of 2002 onwards, and the sophisticated four-stroke 800cc machines which are introduced from 2007 – change has been the only constant in top-flight motorcycle racing. However, one thing still hasn’t changed. What’s still as important today as it was back then is what the oft-injured Barry Sheene used to say, and what Valentino Rossi has repeatedly demonstrated. It’s the will to win ... And that, thankfully, will never change .....

Satadru Roy

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